I picked up this recent-ish novel partly as research for my book (it’s set in New York in 1938), and although I’m a cranky and overly judgmental reader of contemporary fiction, I enjoyed it beyond its atmospheric charms. The author is a first-time novelist who’s also the head of an investment firm in Manhattan, and for some reason that information is both galling and informative. The book is obsessed with money, as practical fact and glittering illusion, and with the fine-lined social picture of Manhattan society, from its plutocrats to its impoverished artists. It also makes for some uncomfortable turns of plot, in which the renunciation of wealth for hard physical labor is redemptive (for men, at least), and weak men become strong by joining the army. The narrator is (unsurprisingly) a bookish, observant, working-class girl of Russian immigrant stock, improbably named Katey Kontent, who is by turns, often unpredictably, timid and bold, frumpish and vampish. She’s strongest when she’s describing other people – her glamorous, mercurial roommate Eve, and the wealthy lover they share, who is of course not what he seems. Reviews of the book tend to reference Fitzgerald, because the author himself likes to do so, and the novel is laden with often heavy-handed English-major allusions. At one point the narrator, who has vaulted herself into an assistant’s position at a new Condé Nast glossy magazine, is told to take a contributor’s article and make it less Henry James, more Hemingway. It sounds like something the author’s been told, or has told himself, and for the most part he finds a comfortable enough line between the two – perhaps too comfortable. Too much time spent in the company of Towles’s prose, as in the stylized, stifling apartments of his wealthy characters, makes you yearn for a little mess and a little more adventure.
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